Back in 2005, when Barack Obama had just been elected to be the United States Senator from Illinois, his wife Michelle described him this way:
Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.
In about a year and a half, that exploration will come to an end when his tenure in politics is over. One of my fantasies lately has been that at that point I’d have the opportunity to interview the President and ask him what he’s learned about the viability of politics to make change.
But Marc Maron may have beaten me to the punch. During his interview with the President, he made the cynical but provocative observation that perhaps the presidency was simply “middle management” in a system that is already entrenched. President Obama didn’t necessarily disagree. But here’s what he said (I’ll summarize because I haven’t been able to find a transcript):
The emphasis on “hope and change” during the 2008 election captured our aspirations about where we should be going. But the question becomes, “how do we operationalize these concepts into concrete actions?” When it comes to specifics, the world is complicated and there are choices you have to make. The trajectory of progress comes in fits and starts and where you’re going is balanced by what is and where you’ve been. Progress in a democracy is never instantaneous and it’s always partial.
On the idea of “middle management,” sometimes your job is just to make things work. And sometimes your task is to make incremental improvements. It’s like steering an ocean liner and making a 2 degree turn so that 10 years from now we’re suddenly in a very different place. You can’t turn 50 degrees all at once because that’s not how societies – especially democracies – work. As long as we’re turning in the right direction and we’re making progress, government is working like its supposed to.
A visualization of what he’s saying would look something like this:
That is very similar to what the President said to David Remnick about a year and a half ago, using Abraham Lincoln as an example.
“I think we are born into this world and inherit all the grudges and rivalries and hatreds and sins of the past,” he said. “But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have.” The long view again. “But I think our decisions matter,” he went on. “And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that at the end of the day we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”
Earlier in the interview, President Obama talked about something he spends a lot of time thinking about these days. It was prompted by a discussion about the shooting in South Carolina and our country’s inability to implement common sense gun laws. In a sense, it was a reflection on why our politics today is so limited when it comes to change. The President said that his time in office has confirmed his belief that the Americans are overwhelmingly good, decent, generous people.
The problem is that there is a gap between who we are as a people and how our politics is expressed. We’re not having a common conversation. Both news outlets and politicians profit from simplifying and dividing us. As a result, people check out because politics is detached from our daily lives. This creates a negative feedback loop because, as the public withdraws, we get more gridlock.
The question is, “how do we build institutions and connections that allow the decency of the American people to express itself in the decisions about how to move forward as a country?”
I suspect that if we were to ask President Obama what he feels is his biggest failure in office, he would note that it’s about his inability to change this. But he did go on to say that this is exactly why he’s doing things like going to Marc Maron’s garage to have a conversation. The suggestion is that he’s still experimenting with ways to break through.
Whether or not you agree with the President’s take on these questions, it was a fascinating discussion that provided a lot of insight into his thinking. But…I’d still love to have the chance to ask the question my way in a couple of years.